Category Archives: Uncategorized

“On holiday” isn’t going away

The British equivalent of Americans’ traditional “on vacation” seems to be getting more established over here, at least judging from the e-mail I got today:

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Or maybe she was using it in a distinctive way, to mean “out of the office on the day of a holiday.” Question to British readers: can “on holiday” refer to a period of time as short as a day?

In any case, happy July 4th to all of you as well, and no hard feelings to my friends across the Atlantic.

“Over the moon”

Earlier this month, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo said, “We have things rolling out this fall that I am over the moon about and can’t wait for people to see.” The week before, race car driver Scott Dixon said he was “over the moon” about winning the Firestone 600.

“Over the moon” is of course a metaphorical way of saying you’re happy and excited. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is from 1936. It’s not unfamiliar to Americans, but it’s traditionally been more common in Britain, as this Google Ngram Viewer chart shows:

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In recent years, it’s mainly been the province of British and Australian celebrities talking about being pregnant or having a child, or athletes talking about winning a game. Such uses still yield the majority of Google News hits, such as Perth Now’s that an Australian businessman’s girlfriend has a baby bump: “’I’m over the moon. It’s the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me,’ the proud expectant dad told us exclusively.'”

But the Costolo and Dixon quotes suggest that “over the moon” will follow the lead of “at the end of the day” (which I see to my horror that I’ve never done an entry on) and become established in the U.S.

“Covers band”

Catching up on New Yorkers, I happened on a poem by John Koethe, which begins:

It’s a great poem, but, needless to say, what mainly interested me was Koethe’s use of covers band instead of cover band — to mean a musical combo whose repertoire consists of songs popularized by other performers. It was a new example, to me, of a phenomenon I’ve discussed before — the growing pluralization of attributive nouns, such as Yankees fan replacing Yankee fan. As with such phrases as jobs (instead of job) report, drinks (instead of drink) menu, and books (instead of book) editor, the covers band example is consistent with the trend of Americans (Koethe was born in San Diego) adopting British usage. Of course, plural forms have not been unheard of in the United States: for example, parks commissioner or Antiques Road Show. But more and more attributives have become plural; I actually have the sense that I had never before even confronted covers band.

This Google Ngram Viewer chart confirms that it has been rare in the United States, while (interestingly) roughly equally common as cover band in Britain.

In a sort of Woody Allen-Marshall McLuhan moment, I tweeted at The New Yorker copy editor Mary Norris, wondering about the use of covers in the Koethe poem. She responded:

Oldies station — a radio station that plays old songs — is indeed a longstanding formulation here. Maybe it’s a music thing?

That doesn’t appear to be the case. In a 2002 paper, the linguist Elisa Sneed refines the work of Maria Alegre and Peter Gordon in determining the circumstances in which plural attributives tend to be used. There seem to be two important factors. The first is “abstractness.” Sneed writes: “Something not easily imagable, such as a process (admissions), an action (assists), a thing (benefits), or something that is otherwise complex (dissertations) is abstract; something easily imagable and simple conceptually, such as pencils or flowers, is concrete” (italics added).

So dissertations index sounds okay; *flowers pot does not.

The second factor is heterogeneity in the head (final) noun of the phrase. Sneed gives the example of analyst as a head noun that promotes “diversity among the entities denoted by the internal noun” and pile as one that highlights homogeneity. So we might say weapons analyst but weapon pile, as well as cookie jar and sock drawer.

She provides this nifty predictive chart, explaining, “Compounds that most closely meet the requirements for abstractness and heterogeneity will be perfectly acceptable, like admissions department. However, as we move away from the ideal in either dimension, the compound becomes less acceptable. This is illustrated by the difference between antiques dealer and antiques collector in the iso-acceptability diagram, where the latter is farther from the ideal.”

Three other wrinkles. First, irregular plurals tend to be more acceptable than regular plurals as attributives. We might say mice droppings but never *rats droppings. Second, as noted by David Crystal, the plural is often used in cases when meaning might otherwise be ambiguous or misleading. Thus, in baseball, a batter who doesn’t have enough power to produce doubles, triples, or home runs is a singles hitter. To call him a single hitter might mean that he’s just one hitter, or that he’s unmarried. Finally, the plural is used in cases when a possessive apostrophe is understood, such as farmers market or the street in Philadelphia where you go to buy a wedding ring, Jewelers Row.

I haven’t found a source that discusses, much less explains, the British preference for plurals even when Sneed’s criteria are not met, or the recent American tendency to adopt these expressions. Going back to the original example, there definitely is a sense of heterogeneity — it wouldn’t do to play the same song over and over again.  But one has a concrete rather than abstract sense of the repertoire, be it “Proud Mary” or “Get Off of My Cloud.” Yet John Koethe chose and insisted on covers band. It is a puzzlement.

The one thing I’m fairly certain of is that the plural trend will continue, and that the tendency will be to call it the plurals trend.

“Hoover” avoidance

On a couple of occasions (most recently) I’ve written about “hoover” as a transitive verb meaning what Americans would traditionally describe as “vacuuming up.” The usage has gained traction here, to the point where when I saw this in today’s New York Times

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I couldn’t help thinking that the author of the article (or his editor) was trying really, really, really hard not to say “hoover.”

“Cheeky Nando’s”

Humility is always a good thing. I got a dose of it recently, courtesy of a BuzzFeed article posted to Facebook by a friend of mine, Siobhan Wagner, a journalist who was born in the U.S, but has been living in London for nine years. The article was called “Americans On Tumblr Are Trying To Find Out What A ‘Cheeky Nando’s’ Is And Are Struggling” and concerned a meme that had become popular in England. Here’s an example:

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As the title suggests, the article detailed the exasperation expressed by Americans, in trying to cypher out the meaning not only of “cheeky Nando’s” but of the definitions for it put forward by Brits. Here’s one exchange:

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And another:

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I mentioned humility. The notion is relevant because premise of this blog is that the gap between the two brands of English — American and British —is diminishing and will one day recede to nothing.

The cheeky Nando’s discourse showed me how far away that day is. Both the above explanations could be in a foreign language, so full are they with slang that a Yank can barely comprehend, much less consider utilizing.  Take the second one. We get “mate,” to be sure;  “wif” is a rendition of Mockney th-fronting (as in calling Keith Richards “Keef”). “jd”: I have no clue. Same with “curry club” and “the ‘Spoons.” Urban Dictionary has this for “ledge”: “Shortened slang for ‘legendary’, or, more commonly, for ‘legend’.” Then there’s this whole “banter” thing, which seems to elevate joking around with the lads to a sacred pedestal. (I love the #barackobanter hashtag.) Turning again to Urban Dictionary,  I find the brev defined as “chav word for brother,” i.e, it’s a case of th-fronting abbreviation. And note that the person giving the definition calls him- or herself “chavvesty.” The OED, which doesn’t include ledge or brev, defines chav this way: “In the United Kingdom (originally the south of England): a young person of a type characterized by brash and loutish behaviour and the wearing of designer-style clothes (esp. sportswear); usually with connotations of a low social status.” (Sportswear??) I can figure out “Top. Let’s smash it” from context clues, but I couldn’t imagine using it.

That still doesn’t explain “cheeky Nando’s”! I have actually written about cheeky, which is something like a cross between sassy and impudent. And I know from my time in the U.K. that Nando’s is a chain of restaurants specializing in spicy grilled chicken, which has now expanded into the U.S.; I can figure out that in the meme, “Nando’s” signifies, basically, “food ordered and eaten in a Nando’s establishment.” (For a humorous take on the chain see this video.) But I still didn’t have a clue as to what the expression means. Taking on the established befuddled Yank role, I asked Siobhan if she could supply a definition/explanation, and she kindly did so:

Basically, the concept of a “cheeky Nandos” is similar to a “cheeky pint.” Maybe when you were in London, someone might have asked you ‘Fancy a cheeky pint after work?’ Effectively they’re saying: I know it’s only Tuesday and I really should be rushing home to make something for dinner or perhaps (more virtuously) going to the gym, but do you want to have a quick drink or two in the local pub before heading on the torture chamber known as the rush hour tube? A “cheeky Nandos” is, similarly, an unexpected suggestion. You’re probably already out with friends, maybe at the pub, actually maybe having that “cheeky pint” that was suggested, and then your stomach rumbles and you’re like: “Actually, how would you fancy a cheeky Nandos now?” Nandos following the consumption of 1.5-2 alcoholic beverages probably falls under the category of “cheeky.” Going to Nandos drunk isn’t cheeky, though. The idea is you are in the mid-point of your night out with friends when “banter” is really going. Everyone is laughing, probably “taking the piss” (making fun) of each other, and a relaxed sit-down restaurant where you pay up front (so you don’t have the messiness of figuring out how to split the bill later) is totally perfect.

I get it, kind of. But, keeping with the theme of humility, I’m still very ignorant on what might be called the rhetorical framing of the meme, including what it means that, in some representation, David Cameron (hardly a chav) is pictured. Can English readers help me out on the issue of exactly what group is being mocked, and what group is doing the mocking–and if there is any overlap between the two?

“Row”

“Row”–defined by the OED as “a noisy or violent argument”–is a useful word, being roughly in the middle between “fight,” on the one hand, and “quarrel” or “argument,” on the other.

It is definitely a Britishism–or at least, has been one since about 1930, according to this Ngram viewer chart. (The OED‘s first citation is from 1746.) I searched for the phrase “had a row” to reduce other uses of the word.
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My sense is that in recent decades, “row” has generally been limited in the U.S., first, to pretentious people  and, second, to headline writers, based on another useful quality: its brevity. However, this sentence appeared recently in the text of a Wall Street Journal article, in reference to a Philadelphia woman: “Mrs. Stokes, 63, was arrested twice in 2008 and 2010 during rows with her now-estranged husband.”

I searched “had a row” on Google News and had to go back about 90 hits before I found one from an American source–a Chicago classical music website. But it turned out to be a quote from a British director. So for now, useful or not, “row” is still “on the radar.”

Red Nose Day

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Nick Offerman with red nose

John Wall writes with the suggestion of new concept for this blog: the cultural Not One-Off Britishism. The import he has in mind is Red Nose Day, which I just learned was started in the U.K. in 1988 as a way to raise money for charitable causes through comedy performances on TV and, apparently, rampant photos of people wearing red noses, in the manner of clowns.

On May 21, Red Nose Day is coming to the U.S., through a variety of NBC broadcasts and other events.

It seems like a good cause, but with all due respect, the brand needs some work, since (in my humble opinion), there is little that’s unfunnier than a clown.